That annoying buzzing sound you hear is emanating from your local multiplex, tasked with the chore of playing The Green Hornet five times a day. And everyone knows a hornet’s nest is best left undisturbed. So let’s all slowly back away.
It’s no surprise that The Green Hornet is no great shakes: even those who don’t actively follow Hollywood strategy should be able to intuit that a movie costing north of $130 million shouldn’t appear in mid-January. An early sequence set to Johnny Cash’s rendition of “I Hung My Head,” sounds like a confession from Oscar winner Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). On the other hand, he takes a conspicuously defensive “A Film By…” credit, ordinarily a point of pride for a director.
Gondry’s sense of whimsy goes AWOL in this reboot of George W. Trendle’s radio hero (later the star of movie serials, comic books, and the short-lived TV series with Van Williams and Bruce Lee). The dominant presence is that of Seth Rogen, who stars and co-wrote the screenplay with writing partner Evan Goldberg. Rogen lost something like thirty pounds to play an action hero, but with his perpetual half-beard and frat-party mien, he still comes off as a schlubby jerk, poor company for a two-hour movie. Britt Reid (Rogen) is the wastrel son of newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who defined his son’s future twenty years earlier by spitting, “Trying doesn’t matter because you always fail.”
The unanticipated death of his father nudges Britt into the daylight, but he has no ambitions for The Daily Sentinel. Only when he meets the family mechanic/barista Kato (Jay Chou of Curse of the Golden Flower) does Britt find inspiration: a drunken criminal escapade turns into an impromptu crime-fighting incident. Soon, Kato is putting his mechanical genius and martial-arts skills to heroic use, though Britt gets all the credit as the masked duo’s front man, the Green Hornet.
The slacker-styled slackness of the plotting could have been a witty virtue (something closer to Kick-Ass) had the film the courage of its convictions. Though both Britt and Kato have designs on the former’s crime-savvy secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz), she expresses a clear preference for Kato. Instead of ramping up the emasculating gag of Kato being the true hero, Rogen and Goldberg wimp out and follow the Hollywood tradition of treating Asian-Americans as sexless second bananas. It doesn’t take long to realize that The Green Hornet’s feints at upending convention will never land an actual punch, apart from the fact that the hero is a hateful idiot.
Chou shows signs of charm, Rogen’s self-conscious dorkiness is good for one or two chuckles, and Christoph Waltz’s panache-deficient villain has an amusing bit with an unbilled A-list star, but the enterprise mostly spews noxious gas and obnoxious patter. When in doubt (and it’s a seemingly perpetual state here), Gondry throws in some more rocket-launched missiles. A nervous studio sprung for a late-breaking 3D conversion, but it’s little help: ponying up for a ticket at any price will teach you the true meaning of the hero’s battle cry, “You’ve just been stung!”
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]